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City Contemporary Dance Company

'The City of K'

by David Mead

March 7, 2009 -- Hong Kong Cultural Centre Piazza

Even against the backdrop of Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong’s dramatic skyline, a chilly, grey, March afternoon with the wind coming in off the water does not provide the best conditions for watching dance outdoors.  Although the weather may have been dull, City Contemporary Dance Company’s programme of excerpts from works by Resident Choreographer Helen Lai, put together to celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary, was anything but.

Lai is Hong Kong’s most prominent choreographer.  The four pieces from which the programme was drawn demonstrated the breadth of her work and the many and varied sources from which she takes inspiration.

Premiered in 2000, the full theatrical version of “Plaza X” includes ice skating, text and passionate tango alongside Lai’s contemporary dance choreography.  For “The City of K”, however, she chose extracts danced to selections from three Bach cello suites that powerfully conveyed ideas of dream, love and fear, Lai’s choreography always completely at one with the music. Lai asked her dancers to run with meaning and intention.  Whether apparently fleeing from, or looking for, someone, the intensity was plain for all to see. Drawing on ballet as well as modern dance, the impressive duets that followed were often graceful, but occasionally more edgy and intense.

Much of this action took place in the presence of the haunting figure of a man with a suitcase, his face frozen, his eyes staring into emptiness.  Even in this open air setting, Dominic Wong managed to suddenly appear and vanish.  His was a powerful presence that dominated the scene, but why he was there was left for the audience to decide.  Was he some supernatural traveller, a memory, or an angel, watching over the others as they danced out their own emotions, needs and memories?  Perhaps the dancers were lost souls and a reflection of his memories.

Two short sections were performed from “La Vie en Rose”, a work inspired by and danced to the songs of French chanteuse Edith Piaf. One of these sections included some almost perfect unison dancing from six men in black suits dancing with chairs.

Next was “The Comedy of K” (2004), inspired by Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.  The opening section appeared to show a couple arguing, then other couples appeared, each in a different relationship.  In fact, relationships were something of a theme, linking all four of the works on show here.  But Lai soon transported us to a more absurd and surrealistic world, full of faceless figures in black suits.  There was a man trying on and rejecting hat after hat.  Then many other dancers appeared, Chaplinesque in attire but almost robotic in movement.  In another complete change, Lai showed us dancers leaping and tumbling athletically onto and around a bed. I don’t even pretend to understand everything that was going on, but it was fascinating nonetheless.  The work seemed to have lots in common with European dance theatre, perhaps not surprising as Lai cites Pina Bausch as having a major influence on her development.

To close, Lai chose selections from easy-on-the-eye and easy-on-the-ear, “It’s So Easy to Fall in Love”.  We were back to relationships again as the dancers reflected the passion, sweetness and bitterness of their partnerships.  Danced to well-known favourite love songs, the timeless choreography drew heavily on social dance, the dancers completely surrendering themselves to the mood of the music.  I almost felt like joining in, and I doubt I was the only of those watching who walked away humming the closing tune, Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”.

Although the meaning of Lai’s choreography may not always be obvious, that it has meaning is clear.  The company danced magnificently; every gesture and each movement was true.  If we saw anger and arguments, we may not know what caused them, but we saw they were real.  The dancers never held back, whether because of the cold or the hard paved surface.  It really was a performance to warm you up on a cold day.

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